Brush-drawn faces #inktober

This year I decided to take part in Inktober. In typical Ella style I haven’t followed the #inktober drawing prompts. However I have enjoyed taking part in the art challenge, particularly my black and white brush-drawn faces.

ink face ella johnston

As regular readers of this blog will know I am hugely influenced by Matisse and Japanese brush drawings. So this is me working through my influences and trying new drawing techniques and styles.

ink face ella johnstonI feel a bit indulgent creating these face drawings. I love using a Japanese calligraphy brush with this free flowing Indian ink. I really enjoy the easy curves and marks this brush makes. However I’m aware I need to develop my own style. It’s a really stage in developing new work.
ink face ella johnston

New book illustration project: Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher

Cover, Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Cover, Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

I’m excited to tell you about new book illustration project with Dunlin Press: Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, by Alex Toms. The debut poetry collection launches on Thursday 11th October 2018 and the words inside it are simply stunning.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

We already had beautiful photography from MW Bewick for the poetry book but we wanted an illustrative element too. In illustrating this book I really wanted to do the poems justice. I was mindful not to interfere with the reader’s experience of the words by being too literal in my illustration. My work had to convey a mood and atmosphere while allowing the amazing imagery that Alex creates to breathe.

Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms
Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms

When approaching this illustration commission I do what I always do, go back to my art history books and my old sketchbooks. My studio is packed with sketchbooks and folders stuffed full of experiments and ideas that I’ve parked for later and my ever-growing art book collection is a constant resource. Alongside a scrapbook of cut-out collages I did about 10 years ago when I was hungover in my art studio in Tottenham (never throw away your sketchbooks kids), a book on DADA and a book on Matisse’s cut-outs, the visual concept for “Eels” was born.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

I love paper cuts,  I could swear I love them so much but I have never found a way to incorporate paper cuts into a project. Seeing my old scrapbooks and work by very different artists using cut-up and collage techniques freed me to create something visceral, with a sense of movement, depth and physicality that is so alive in Alex’s poems.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

Originally I had little, delicately trimmed paper shapes on painted backgrounds but everything seemed too polite and restrained. So I went big and got to work drawing with scissors on A2 and A3 black matte paper, creating lots and lots of rough eel, sea kale and old fashioned eel catcher net shapes.

Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.
Inner paper cut illustrations for Lessons for an Apprentice Eel Catcher, Alex Toms. Published by Dunlin Press.

I then arranged the shapes randomly on a large piece of card, set-up my camera and tripod over the card, and made a series of compositions with the cut out paper. The results were exactly what I wanted.

The book launches on Thursday 11th October 2018 and you can pre-order it HERE

At Home with Sarah Campbell

SarahCambellMemmIt’s rare to meet a true design icon, rarer still to be welcomed into one’s home. So it was a great pleasure to be invited to Sarah Campbell’s colourful and exciting abode.

You may think you don’t know Campbell but believe me you probably do. Working with her sister Susan Collier since the sixties, their vibrant creations have charmed design and illustration junkies like myself over decades, with collaborations with Liberty, Habitat, Jaeger and Conran. In fact when I was researching Sarah I was delighted to discover that I had some of the Liberty designs at home.

After her sister’s death in 2011, Sarah has been working independently and as a lover of her vibrant, painterly style and celebration of shape and colour I couldn’t wait to ask her about her practice and, if I’m being honest, get some tips of making my own work as exciting and effortlessly original as hers.
Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk Warm welcome
As you walk into Sarah’s fab mid-century modern home, you are immediately struck by colourful designs and a delicious array of textiles. It was heartening to see this – I was pleased it wasn’t a sterile space or simply too cool for school. In fact the exuberance and vibrancy of her illustrative work truly extends to her main room, with vivid soft furnishings and a bright green wall enhancing the foliage outside.

“Colour is the stuff of life,” she says. “When babies are very young we’re told they see colour as the contrast of black and white. But they very soon come to love real colours. It’s very important, colour is a magnet – people are drawn to it. Even in a home that’s all white or cream, I’d be hoping to see a bunch of red flowers or a merry postcard.”

There is an emotional connection too, she adds. “I went to a magnificent newly refurbished house recently where they had painted their kitchen wall a lovely turquoisey green. I couldn’t help but remark upon it. They told me that they’d had the colour in their previous home and just couldn’t live without it. I thought that was wonderful – a great anchor for a new ship if you like. It’s like they know they’re home.”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukAs well as the attractive combination of textures, shapes and hues in the house, I was also pleased to be greeted by a Matisse poster in the sitting room. Sarah’s work has always reminded me of this artist (one of my favourites) and I couldn’t help but ask her about this…

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk“Well you can’t do better than Matisse as an inspiration. I think of him as a friend. There are lots of aspects of his work I love. He was brought up in a weavers’ town in northern France so he really understands textiles. They way he uses patterns in his paintings reflects his childhood surroundings. When I look at something like his painting The Pink Studio, I imagine him under the weaving machine observing all the different angles of the pattern.”

I think Sarah shares Matisse’s understanding of shape and composition, and while this looks free and playful, it is of course much more complex than that.

“You look at people like Matisse, Picasso, Dufy – they can all draw. You can’t reduce something to its simplest form unless you understand it. Drawing is the key. An artist’s essential line is a wonderful thing – it’s just lovely.”
Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukSarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk Mark making
I see a lightness of touch in Sarah’s work, the approach feels joyful and I get a strong sense of maker’s hand in her products. She credits this to being open to influences and enjoying the process of creating.

“My pieces start with painting on paper so it is a very tactile process. People at my workshops say happily that the work is hard but like playing and I say ‘well you can see why I’m so cheerful.’ Everything has influence. I have a very large storage cabinet in my brain. New work can be inspired by a new type of paper, or a simple set of pens or brushes that make me  think in a different way, so I can approach it with an inquisitive attitude.”

“When I do workshops I say, ‘we’re not all going to be old masters but we can all enjoy making marks’. Everyone can get something from this experience. People so often have their creative urges curtailed at one point or another. The words, ‘can’t’ and ‘I’m rubbish’ are often used when it comes to creative endeavours – these words are banned at my workshops. I encourage people to have fun and surprise themselves by their own capacities. ”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.uk Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukThe pleasure of creating
It is this sense of enjoyment and a child-like curiosity that Sarah believes keeps her work fresh and enables her to innovate.

“I have to earn a living, I need to send things out to clients for their approval but the sense of exploration has to be at the heart of work. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had a lifetime of painting patterns. I still enjoy that exploration.”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukAs a commercial artist, I imagine she must have been under pressure to ‘churn out what has worked’, so I ask her if she’s ever tempted to repeat past glories or stick to a particular formula that she knows to be popular.

“I have thought about revisiting some of our classics, and indeed have reprinted some of our most famous designs, like Cote d’Azure, as scarves and cushions and possible yardage – they stand the test of time and I still want them to be seen by a wider audience. The old designs certainly retain validity, no doubt. And, of course I do have my own style and way of working. I know what colour combinations and compositions work and naturally I want to make the best use of my experience. When I look back over the archive I can see there are interests that come and go, and motifs and ideas that reoccur, but I’d be a bit embarrassed to go back to the same thing again and again. The market changes, fashions and interests move on all the time, and production possibilities are developing constantly. The main impetus of work is looking and going forward, not back – after all, that’s the designer’s job.”

She continues… “Although it’s clear that building a brand successfully can be done by relying on a very succinct design look, Susan and I built our identity by creating lots and lots of different patterns for our many varied customers. Possibly commercial life might have been simpler if we’d only developed one or two signature motifs… but we enjoyed thinking of new things, couldn’t help it  – and I still do.”

Sarah Campbell House ellasplace.co.ukTrail blazers
In such a crowded and competitive arena, Campbell is still very active; collaborating with West Elm, producing collections with Michael Miller Fabrics plus producing a new range for homewares and ceramics, Viva, with Magpie. So what advice would she give to up and coming designers?

“There is still a huge appetite for colour and pattern. Wherever you come from, I believe drawing and the enjoyment of it is fundamental. Keep listening, keep looking, keep your observation skills honed and keep working at your designs. Don’t dismiss what you think of as the mistakes – they are useful. Keep records and date your work, sketches and all that way you know what you did, what you learnt and achieved during that period.”

As you can tell by that last comment, while Sarah is a warm, friendly, unpretentious person, she’s tough. Of course she is, she has been working in the design industry for more than 50 years and there is a strength and wisdom to her that I found very inspiring.

“I’m most proud of still being here doing it. It’s not easy. My sister and I  did, I suppose, break through a number of barriers but there were two of us and we brought our individual talents and qualities to the partnership. It’s great to still be working. I welcome new commissions and mainstream customers. I also love working with individuals on bespoke designs for curtains, furniture, clothes and walls. It continues to be great fun and very rewarding.”

See more of Campbell’s work at sarahcampbelldesigns.com

Pinning images the old-fashioned way

PinboardI’m constantly pinning images to my Pinterest boards (here) and they’re great for inspiration in my work on magazines, as well as creating mood boards for styling my home. At home I like pinning things too – I have real-life pin boards in my studio space and also in my kitchen (pictured, above). These boards are constantly evolving – they get so full – and they’re great for reminding me of some of the things that I’ve enjoyed and over recent months and years. So what’s on the board above? Well, roughly, from top to bottom and left t0 right:

  • Perfect Match card by illustrator Tom Frost, given by friends as an anniversary card for me and Dr B.
  • Factory Records postcard – I think the world’s a better place for having had Anthony H Wilson in it.
  • Golden Lane Estate, Christmas card, by Stefi Orazi – we used to live here.
  • Norfolk Broads – postcard of a vintage tourism poster.
  • Invitation from Tracey Emin to her private view at Sketch, London. I got rather drunk.
  • Royal Festival Hall Christmas card, by Stefi Orazi – one of my favourite places to hang out.
  • Dedham Vale, by John Constable – one of my newer favourite places to hang out.
  • Paper butterflies, made from paper designed for one of my magazines.
  • Loving Budgies – one of my own business cards.
  • Lucknam Park hotel. We stayed and it was heaven.
  • Bicycle card – with a quote from HG Wells. Dr B is a big fan of the Tour de France.
  • Door 102, Crescent House, card by Stefi Orazi. We once lived at 230.
  • Rose print card from my sister, from archivistgallery.com.
  • Jennings beer mat – Dr B’s favourite brew, from near where he grew up in the Lake District.
  • Alresford Creek photograph/birthday card taken by Dr B. This dilapidated hut is just a walk downriver from us.
  • Matisse blue nude – I never tire of looking at Matisse’s work. The Matisse Museum in Nice is one of my favourite places.
  • Crescent House, again by Stefi Orazi. This shows our old flat.
  • The Beatles – I love this picture of them and George looks great as ever.
  • I Want to Rock Your World – postcard picked up in Barcelona.
  • Bewick Swan – Dr B received the gift of sponsorship of a swan for his birthday. It shares his last name.
  • The Piano Lesson, by Matisse – an earlier work from 1916. We saw it where it lives at MOMA in New York.
  • The Beatles Show birthday card.
  • James Joyce – one of the greatest authors ever. We had a reading from Dubliners at our wedding. Beautiful.
  • Emmeline Pankhurst.
  • Forget-Me-Not drawing by me.
  • Adanaland handprinted stamp, given to me by the maker, Alan Brignull, who lives not far from me here in Wivenhoe.
  • Red Wallpaper card – an postcard from a series of paintings I did a few years ago.
  • Cormorant, card of print by Richard Bawder.
  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel – an iconic photograph.
  • The Rolling Stones – and it all ends with some rock ‘n’ roll!

If you’ve only been pinning to online boards recently, maybe it’s time to do it for real and brighten up a working space at the same time.